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    Memo to schools: Watch bottom line

    The state school board group urges putting new hiring, contract talks and programs on hold.


    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published October 3, 2001

    TALLAHASSEE -- School districts across the state were urged this week to halt any major financial decisions until the Florida Legislature meets later this month to plug a hole in the budget that could exceed $1-billion.

    Florida's 67 districts should "take whatever steps you can to increase and protect your reserve funds," state school board association director Wayne Blanton wrote in a memo sent Monday.

    Blanton urged school districts to adopt hiring freezes, delay any new programs and stop all contract talks until after the special session.

    "The session results could seriously impact your ability to give additional pay raises," Blanton said, and urged association members to tell their legislators to protect education from severe cuts.

    Some 32 school districts are either in the middle of contract talks with teachers, have delayed them or are waiting to begin, according to the Florida Education Association.

    A number of school districts were already planning for the economic downturn that was in the cards and worsened after last month's terrorist attacks. But the Sept. 11 attacks changed the severity of the outlook, said Hillsborough County schools Superintendent Earl Lennard.

    "I absolutely believe that the parent of that (hypothetical) fourth-grader must have concerns," Lennard said. Hillsborough plans to work with the state to insulate students, as much as possible, from the effects of the cuts.

    "But depending on the size of the deficit, there certainly will be ramifications all the way down," Lennard said.

    Pinellas County prepared by gathering its administrators on Friday and announcing a hiring freeze, said school district spokesman Ronald Stone. Administrators there estimate they may lose up to $18-million this year, most of that in reduced state funding.

    Stone said Pinellas, like Hillsborough, hopes to use the hiring freeze to create a buffer between the cuts and the classrooms.

    Pasco County superintendent John Long outlined for his school board Tuesday about $5-million in one-time cuts the district could make. Included are the elimination of up to nine central office jobs, using $1.7-million tabbed for new computers and networks to cover payroll and cutting $1-million in summer school programs, among others.

    Long said the district could also spend $2-million of its cash reserves, which total slightly more than $4-million.

    "Come July 1, we may have to undergo serious layoffs," Long said. "We're digging ourselves a real serious hole."

    In Pasco, a 1 percent cut in state aid equals $1.6-million, enough to pay the salaries and benefits of nearly 25 classroom teachers -- enough for a small elementary school.

    - Times staff writers Kent Fischer and Barry Klein contributed to this report.

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